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Kick butt ergo sum: (l-r) Hammond and Demke in Shakespeare & Co.’s Fly-Bottle.

Philosophy by Force
By James Yeara

The Fly-Bottle
By David Egan, directed by Tina Packer

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, Mass., through Aug. 24

If three philosophers had an argument but there were no other witnesses, would it make any sound? Such is the crux of David Egan’s new 95-minute, intermissionless play, The Fly-Bottle. The 1946 encounter (known as the Poker Incident to the esoterically inclined) between rival philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein (Michael Hammond), Karl Popper (Dave Demke) and Bertrand Russell (Dennis Krausnick) is presented as a Rashomon-type look at the same event from the perspective of each philosopher. Staged crisply in the drawing-room ambience of the intimate Spring Lawn Theatre, The Fly-Bottle is like a peek through the facades into the souls of three acclaimed philosophical geniuses. Those who like their philosophies and pretensions with a capital “P” will be pleased.

With three wooden chairs by a fireplace and a Cambridge University-crest-adorned podium in front of the exterior windows, The Fly-Bottle has the ideal setting, and director Tina Packer creates the ideal pace. The three antagonists mix, match, meld, and mew marvelously. The Fly-Bottle isn’t so much a philosophical discourse as it is a series of intercourses between raging egos and bleeding psyches.

The play begins with Sir Karl Raimond Popper (a blue-suited Demke, who also sports an unwavering Austrian accent crisp enough to slice bratwurst) presenting his version of the incident. From the moment of the conflict’s conception—Popper challenges the topic of a Wittgenstein speech on “philosophical puzzles,” because he believes more in philosophical problems—to the moment of near impact, when a deranged Wittgenstein menacingly raises a fireplace poker, Popper is a momentous ego in full gust.

Demke creates a Popper of immense smiles that are capped with arrogance, and a shriveled soul wounded by the slights of Vienna’s elite. Popper pops and crows about “winning” the argument with the wealthy Wittgenstein, claiming support from Russell. When Popper pronounces to the audience that “an intellectual partnership was beginning to develop” between himself and Russell, the elderly Russell looks so aghast that he speaks volumes about the politics of academia without saying a word.

Krausnick’s Russell is a facade of gentility, concealing both a sad self-knowledge and a comic joy at the recollection of a “good fuck.” The humor that sprinkles the exchanges between the three grounds them with a surprising humanity, for all the meta-talk about knowledge, language, and the impossibility/possibility of finding the truth. “I think a good book is worth several Panzer divisions if it gets to the right people,” Popper states, to which Russell replies, “Not if the Panzer division gets there first.”

Juxtaposed to Popper’s and Russell’s versions is Wittgenstein’s (Hammond), whose very exhalations seem full of vexation. “If a lion could speak, we couldn’t understand him,” Wittgenstein challenges Popper and the audience, then proves his point with bursts of insights, eyerolls, wild gesticulations and, ultimately, an iron poker employed to overwhelm those who oppose him. Through the histrionics, a man who cares not wisely but too well is revealed in glimpses, like a forest illuminated by lightning; you see individual traits, but not the whole man.

Hammond is especially illuminating during a fantasy sequence that offsets the contrasting versions of the incident. Watching the film Wagon Wheels Westward, trying to block out all distractions with his hands cupped around his eyes, Wittgenstein continues an internal/eternal dialogue with Russell. Russell’s concluding comment, “Each one of us secretly fears the other is the only one who really understands him,” highlights the motivations behind the tantrums, the posturing, the postulations, and the explosions.

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